In 2015, Molly Johnson-Jones secured her first full-time job out of university in investment banking. Eighteen months later, she was asked to leave.
But this wasn’t due to her lack of aptitude for the role. Johnson-Jones has suffered with an autoimmune condition since the age of 18. During periods of flare-ups, she can experience extreme pain in her joints and swelling in her feet, hands and around her eyes, which can make it difficult to walk.
After putting in a flexible working request with her employer at the time, she was sent to an occupational therapist to assess her condition. “They recommended I be classified as disabled because of the severity of the condition,” she says. “Ten days later, I had a settlement package put in front of me, and I was asked to leave immediately.”
She claims the employer said she “wasn’t cut out to work in that environment and used the fact that I couldn’t come into an office as evidence that I ‘wasn’t working hard enough’. I went outside, sat on a bench and cried,” she adds.
The disability employment gap is widening
Johnson-Jones is not alone in her experience. The disability employment gap, which measures the difference between the employment rate in the disabled and non-disabled population in the UK, is now at its widest point since 2018. In the past two years (2021 and 2022) more disabled workers have moved out of work (420,000) than moved in (350,000) – reversing the trend from 2014 to 2019, when there was a net increase in disabled people joining the labour force.
The data shows that, despite the efforts of many businesses to improve inclusion, they have a long way to go to make the workplace a welcoming space for those with disabilities. “There hasn’t been any increase in employers’ understanding of chronic conditions and disabilities,” Johnson-Jones says. “It’s just that the working environment has shifted to being slightly more favourable towards people who do have disabilities and conditions because more companies allow remote working.”
As businesses push for a return to in-person work, even more people with disabilities and chronic conditions could be forced out of the workforce. Johnson-Jones’ own experience of trying to find flexible work led her to set up Flexa Careers, a website that helps people to find companies with a work routine that suits their requirements.
Johnson-Jones acknowledges that not all businesses will be in a position to offer this type of flexibility. “The most important thing is for companies to be transparent about what’s on offer in terms of location, hours and benefits, so that people can make an educated decision about whether it would be the right place for them to work,” she adds.
Being upfront about what’s on offer can also help to avoid difficult conversations at the interview stage. “It’s disempowering for somebody with a disability to have to go into an interview and ask whether something is possible because of their condition,” Johnson-Jones explains.
How to improve disability inclusion in the workplace
Khushboo Patel, head of diversity, inclusion and wellbeing for Metro Bank, also sees the benefit of encouraging conversations about disability within the workplace. She thinks that too many organisations only approach disability inclusion from a legal perspective. “This leads to very different conversations from ones that are caring and empathetic,” she explains.
Flexibility is an important element of promoting inclusion and the retail bank benefits has different roles, from customer-facing to call-centre and office-based jobs. This can make it easier for the business to find a job that suits an individual’s needs.
“Try to understand what the person’s requirements are and overlay it with their career aspirations and what they do at work. And then see what the options are,” Patel advises. “Once you get to that mindset, and once a colleague understands the business is working with them and not against them, you can work together to find a solution.”
But flexibility alone is not sufficient. Data from job searches on Flexa show that people with disabilities and long-term health conditions also have a strong preference to apply for roles at companies that provide mental health support and wellbeing allowances which can be used towards a gym membership or yoga sessions.
“A good range of employee benefits can help to attract the best people to a role and support retention,” says Debra Clark, head of wellbeing at Towergate Health & Protection. “This is no different regardless of whether the person has a chronic illness or condition or a disability.”
She notes that employee assistance programmes are beginning to offer more wide-ranging benefits to encourage regular use of their services. These include daily workouts, meditation sessions, nutrition advice and recipe guides for meals, which can be useful for people with certain conditions. Also, unlike many private health insurers, these perks do not have underwriting applied, meaning that people with pre-existing conditions can still benefit from them.
Encouraging others to open up about their disabilities can also help create a supportive working environment. Metro Bank encourages authenticity within its leadership team and asks senior members of the team to share their wellness, stresses or disabilities, if they feel comfortable doing so. “Having that representation allows people to feel comfortable talking about their own challenges,” Patel says. “It’s not enough to say you have a psychologically safe environment. Your employees have to feel it.”
An open environment, good benefits and flexibility can all contribute to an inclusive working environment. “It isn’t just about attracting diverse employees,” Johnson-Jones says. “It’s also about making them feel included and that they’re being treated equally.”